City Council prolongs debate over Wal-Mart

Kroenke lawyer calls neighborhood protests ‘height of hypocrisy’
Tuesday, December 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:26 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Opponents of a Wal-Mart Supercenter at Fairview Road and Broadway will have to wait two more weeks for the City Council’s decision on whether to rezone the site for planned commercial use.

The council voted unanimously Monday night to approve an amendment proposed last week by the developers and schedule another hearing for the bill at its Jan. 3 meeting. The amendment removed seven acres in the northern part of the site from the zoning request, bringing the total to 23 acres. If approved, the development would include a Supercenter and other shops, as well as buffers and road projects to make it more palatable to neighbors.

The vote came after almost 2½ hours of public comment in which many residents opposed the Supercenter proposed by The Kroenke Group. The council chamber, which has a maximum occupancy of 220, was almost filled, and extra chairs were set up in the lobby of the building so those who could not find a seat in the chamber could watch the meeting on television. This crowd surpassed the more than 100 people who showed up for a public hearing when the issue went before the Columbia Planning and Zoning Commission. The commission voted 6-3 against recommending the rezoning.

Community First, a group organized to oppose the rezoning, contends that placing a Wal-Mart Supercenter next to a residential area will create traffic and other hazards in close proximity to nearby elementary schools. The group has collected about 4,700 signatures in opposition to the plan and has the support of seven neighborhood associations.

“It is obvious that the developer feels no responsibility to the residents of Columbia, only the dollar sign he holds so dear,” said Terry Baker, president of Community First.

Also, neighborhood associations close to the property say the planned shopping center would overwhelm surrounding homes.

“This proposed project is too big for this piece of property; it always has been,” said David Evans, president of the Park De Ville Neighborhood Association. “You could fit the HyVee, Gerbes and Schnucks inside the store they are proposing.”

The Kroenke Group has said all along that it would build a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the site regardless of the council’s vote on the rezoning request. About 17½ acres of the site are already zoned for open commercial use, which would enable the developers to go forward with plans for a 183,500-square-foot store. The plan calls for little landscaping or green space, but it can be built right now without any support from residents.

Several residents at Monday’s public hearing said they think the developers are using this undesirable plan to threaten the city.

“They are saying, ‘If you don’t accept our larger rezoning project, we will cram the smaller one down your throat,’” Evans said.

Craig Van Matre, the attorney representing The Kroenke Group, said this is simply not true.

“The developer wants to build a well-planned and safe development,” Van Matre wrote in a prepared statement designed to refute the opposition’s arguments. “It is the neighbors who are responsible for imposing this threat upon the City Council. This argument is the height of hypocrisy.”

Van Matre said the council has an obligation to look out for the city’s long-term interests, pointing out that the city has changed significantly since the original zoning occurred in 1966.

“A commercial development at the intersection of two major streets (or soon to be major streets) is a logical and wise use of land,” Van Matre wrote.

Although many of those making public comments opposed the development, others spoke in favor of the rezoning.

“They will build on the 17 acres zoned commercial whether we like it or not,” said Irene Haskins, a Park De Ville resident. “I’m still not in love with Wal-Mart — and I probably never will be — but I feel rezoning is the lesser of two evils.”

The public hearing will continue at the council’s Jan. 3 meeting, and a vote on the bill will follow. Aside from the organized proponents and opponents, those who spoke Monday will not be allowed to speak again on Jan. 3 unless they are bringing new information to the discussion.

— Missourian reporter Sam Baker contributed to this report.

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